Britain awoke Friday to the sound of political knives being sharpened for the prime minister, David Cameron, after a win for his Liberal Democrat coalition partners in a bellwether parliamentary by-election that consigned Mr. Cameron's Conservative Party to third place.
The overnight victory by the Lib Dems in the southern English constituency of Eastleigh – vacated by one of their own after a personal scandal over speeding forced him to resign as an MP and minister – gives hope to the centrist party that it can avoid a meltdown in the 2015 election at the hands of voters angered by the government’s austerity agenda.
But in many ways the Lib Dem win was overshadowed by the close second-place finish of the anti-Europe United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The Conservatives had held early hopes of taking Eastleigh to bolster their prospects in 2015; the Tories have never won a majority in a general election without winning Eastleigh.
But UKIP, the upstart rival to the Conservatives, has long been seeking to outflank Britain’s main right-of-center force on immigration and anti-European rhetoric, and last night emerged ahead of the opposition Labour Party as the vehicle of choice for protest voters.
“The Conservatives failed here because traditional Tory voters look at Cameron and ask themselves: Is he a Conservative? And they conclude, no, he is not,” UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, told the BBC Friday, after a result that was predicted to increase discontentment in the Conservative Party about its leadership.
The seat, formerly held by the disgraced ex-cabinet minister Chris Huhne, was won by a local Liberal Democrat town councillor, Mike Thornton, with 32.1 percent of the vote. UKIP, which wants to take the UK out of the European Union, took 27.8 percent, ahead of the Conservative candidate, who won 25.4 percent. Labour was fourth, with 9.82 percent.
Seismic shift? Maybe not.
While UKIP was describing the result as a political "seismic shift" that represented the revulsion of voters of all hues with the main parties, observers stress that UKIP is a quite different political animal than the populist Five Star Movement that threatened to break the mold of Italian politics during that country’s general election this week.
“In many ways, because it is composed largely of many former Tory Party players, UKIP is still ‘of’ the mainstream political system, but it is almost as if it has just stepped outside of that for the moment and is getting the benefit of the doubt from protest-orientated voters,” says Gerry Stoker, a professor at the University of Southampton, near Eastleigh.
“While a movement like [comedian turned politician] Beppe Grillo’s in Italy seems to be much more explicitly anti-political class," he says, "UKIP’s parallels would seem to be much more with right-wing populist European parties, such as perhaps the National Front in France and Nordic parties which have been successful in recent times.”
Despite the fact that immigration featured significantly in UKIP rhetoric, Prof. Stoker adds that it was hard to see how that was a major issue in a constituency like Eastleigh, unlike in others. Instead, he suggests the Liberal Democrats managed to hang onto the seat due to its stewardship of local factors and the type of community-based politics that the party has been pursuing there for decades.
He adds that the draining of support for it and its government coalition partners could be explained by very real voter dissatisfaction about national issues, principally economic performance. UKIP, he says, became the “lightning rod” for this.